Racing the 2010 Catalina GP with Kawasaki

JC Hilderbrand | January 13, 2011

Some racing events are short lived because they’re mismanaged, ill-timed or somehow otherwise doomed to fail. As December rolled around, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t wonder if that could be the case for the 2010 Red Bull Catalina Grand Prix. Skeptically optimistic, racers and fans packed their bikes and gear, boarded the ferry and headed for Avalon 22 miles off the coast of Southern California for the first dirt bike race on Catalina Island in 52 years.

2010 Red Bull Catalina GP
Promoter Vinnie Mandzak (left) stands with two-time Catalina GP winner, Bob Sandgren.

The event was organized by Vinnie Mandzak (My Cuz Vinnie Promotions) who took on the logistical nightmare of hosting a big race on an eco-minded, tourist-driven island. It was announced months in advance, but getting solid information about the race was next to impossible as would-be racers clamored for details. Despite a shaky outlook, riders were hungry for a shot, even if it turned out to be a one-time deal. All 800 entries were booked with many riders forking out the $250 per class to race multiple times. One of the biggest concerns of racing on the island was transporting the hundreds of registered motorcycles. The trick for us was to enlist the help of Kawasaki. Our friends in green slapped a spark-arrested FMF Q4 slip-on exhaust and Dunlop MX51 rear tire and MX71 front tire on a 2011 KX250F and dropped it off at the docks to the of AMA District 37 members in charge of loading the bike containers. Unfortunately, nobody would be on the island to receive it, so Kawi taped a contact name on the front numberplate and hoped for the best.

Getting to the island is simple enough. The Catalina Express ferry operates multiple lines with a wide range of travel times. We spent the extra 15 dollars to upgrade to the Commodore Lounge and made the one-hour ride from the Long Beach Downtown landing in a comfortable, warm cabin, pecking away at our laptop.

Once we hit the docks, our first task was to find our bags, transportation and sustenance – in that order. Pulling our overstuffed Ogio luggage from the hold, our options for getting to the hotels were pretty clear – start walking. The few taxis lingering around were quickly snatched up so we pulled out the drag handles and started the bumpy trek across Catalina’s brick-lined roads and sidewalks. With fuel prices more than double what you find on the mainland, there aren’t many cars on the island. Electric golf carts are by far the most popular mode of transport and we would see about a million variations over the course of our stay. A rental agency was happy to let us have one for $40 per hour, and it needed to be returned every night – neither of which fit into our itinerary or budget. The weather was comfortable and we decided that walking would give us a chance to see the town and find a bite.

2010 Red Bull Catalina GP2010 Red Bull Catalina GP2010 Red Bull Catalina GP
The Casino is easily seen when arriving by ferry (left). Once grounded, we headed to race registration at the Metropole Hotel (center). Red Bull was the major sponsor for this event and their custom go-cart fit right in on the streets of Avalon.

After filling up at Joe’s Place and devising a plan for the rest of the afternoon it was off to find the Hotel St. Lauren to drop off luggage and get settled in for the weekend. The six-story pink building on Beacon Street was pretty easy to spot. The rooftop deck provided a great view of the town and harbor below and a few Red Bull flags indicated the race course up on the hill above. Registration was hosted inside the Hotel Metropole which would be the home base for racers seeking information the rest of the weekend. With so many racers it was a long wait in line, but signups were easy. Multiple District 37 riding clubs were on hand to participate and help with the operations throughout the weekend including the Prospectors MC, Prairie Dogs MC and Checkers MC. From there it was off to the staging area on the edge

2010 Red Bull Catalina GP
2010 Red Bull Catalina GP
Vintage men and machines raced on Saturday before the town lit up with parties.

of the golf course to see if our KX250F ever showed up. Someone had unloaded it and lined it up with the rest of the Race 9 bikes which made it very easy to find. It was dark by the time we finished installing a set of Cycra handguards so we headed over to the riders’ meeting to see if we could find out just what the hell was going to take place the following morning. There were tons of questions at the meeting, not all of which were answered satisfactorily, and on the eve of competition it still looked like the whole thing could disintegrate.

The original Catalina GP was a two day event that started with a 60-mile race (six laps of 10 miles) for the lightweight bikes and 100 miles for the heavyweights (10 laps). This year it was based on time and the course was roughly 5.75 miles. Vintage bikes and vet classes from 30+ to 50+ rode on Saturday while the rest of the amateurs and the two-hour pro race was held Sunday. Despite all the confusion leading up to the event, Saturday kicked off with a parade through town and each race went off the line like clockwork. Fans were treated to great racing and ample viewing of the action. Most gathered around the start/finish section and then migrated to the nearby motocross track, though hard-core enthusiasts were scattered along the entire course. Miraculously, there were no hangups or snafus and the first day of racing was a smashing success by all accounts – plenty of reason for everyone to walk back into town and party hard. (Read the 2010 Red Bull Catalina GP Saturday Results for more details on the racing.)

Sunday was another beautiful day with a little fog that burned off quickly, but the overcast temperatures stayed cool. After watching the first race, I geared up at the hotel and hitched a ride to the pits to grab my Kawi. Slotting in at the start line was a bit jumbled and I wound up on the outside of the first of two waves. The 250B class was one of the larger divisions and it was definitely better to be on the front line even though the gate pick wasn’t great. It was a live-engine start with the riders’ left hand on the rear fender. Once the light turned green I snagged the clutch and jammed the KX-F into gear. My jump was terrible, but the robust engine powered up the long, inclined start to a position that was toward the front of mid-pack. I basically could have pulled off after the first turn, because for all intents and purposes, I didn’t go anywhere in the next 45 minutes. The Kawasaki carried me as high as 12th at the end of the first lap. From the start to the motocross section things went well, but as the course went off onto the graded roads, a lack of flat track skills allowed competitors to slip by. Before I knew it the white flag was waving and I managed to put down my best lap time in an effort to hold off another Kawasaki and a KTM. I rode pretty tight – nothing great, nothing terrible – and eventually wound up 17th, which was roughly the position I rounded the first corner.

2010 Red Bull Catalina GP
The KX250F would have been great if our rider had twisted the throttle a little harder. Racing conditions were perfect.

The course stayed true to the original GP with a wide, fast layout. There really wasn’t any technical sections and what would have really added another dimension to the race would have been a trip through town. Obviously, for rider safety reasons and also the city’s paramedic and fire access, the parade loop was as close as we could get, but it was still one of the coolest races of the year.

After a quick shower and a relaxing meal it was back to the track for the professional race. Three waves of pros in varying age brackets took off for a two-hour race with the weather threatening to turn sour. Fortunately, the on-track battles were epic and the rain held off until just after the checkered flag dropped on JCR Honda rider Kendall Norman. (Read the 2010 Red Bull Catalina GP Sunday Results for a full list.) By the time I made it back to the pits to load the Kawasaki, District 37 members had beaten us to it and already loaded the 250F. With Kawasaki handling the bike on both ends, participating was as easy as possible (thanks Kawi!), but our friends and industry contacts who came out all reported smooth handling as well, even though it was a little vague at times. Most people were able to board the last ferries and make it back home for a night’s rest and work the following day.

2010 Red Bull Catalina GP
2010 Red Bull Catalina GP
Local boys (top) were thrilled to see racing on the island and get autographs from riders like Travis Pastrana (above). It was a winning event for the promoter, racers and local businesses.

MotoUSA Events Coordinator, Ryan Merrill, compared this miracle ride to another of our favorite dirt gatherings, Troy Lee Designs’ ultra-popular A Day in the Dirt – only better. GP-goers have the same joyful, party-like atmosphere, but rather than camping out and braving the cold around a bonfire, Catalina offers a slew of nightlife opportunities. Avalon’s bars were packed every night and some featured live bands. There’s a dance club, tons of restaurants and the ever-popular Casino (which isn’t actually a gambling establishment, but a movie theater). Even though the crowds were packed in for the weekend, the selection of eating establishments spread them out enough that we never needed reservations or experienced an obscene wait. We rumbled our gearbags back to the dock on Monday morning and at least half of the businesses were already shut down again for the off-season. One restaurant owner told us he made more in two days during the GP than he did last year in two months. By the time the weekend was over, Vinnie and the District 37 members had made believers out of everyone, including island residents and businesses. It was a win-win event for all parties.

After walking countless miles around the race course, pits and town, chatting with industry friends and eavesdropping on casual conversations there wasn’t a single bad word uttered about the event. We can only hope that something doesn’t arise in 2011, but such a strong positive reaction can’t be ignored. The only ones griping and groaning are those who didn’t journey across the water. Next year the race entries and hotel reservations will fill up twice as fast. Hopefully the stout showing from enthusiastic and respectful race fans and competitors bring the Catalina GP back for a sophomore showing. Despite its half-century layoff, the Catalina GP doesn’t look to be a mere flash in the pan.


JC Hilderbrand

Off-Road Editor| Articles | Hilde is holding down the fort at MotoUSA’s Southern Oregon HQ. With world-class dirt bike and ATV trails just minutes away, the hardest part is getting him to focus on the keyboard. Two wheels or four, it doesn’t matter to our Off-Road Editor so long as it goes like hell in the dirt.

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